Monday, February 25, 2019

Salamanders begin to run

A bizarre "unisexual" salamander scrambles over some old elm bark in its single-minded drive to reach its ancestral breeding pool. This salamander is a blend of any of a few of several species, or maybe all: blue-spotted, Jefferson, smallmouth, and tiger. I have written more about the unisexuals in THIS POST from a number of years ago. I'm not sure they - the experts - know much more about them now then they did back then.

Last Saturday night was the first potentially good run for salamanders in my neck of the woods. It was about 50 F, and mild showers dampened the ground. That's when the mole salamanders in the genus Ambystoma emerge from subterranean pairs and march overland to their breeding pools. For whatever reason, not many were on the move in the west-central Ohio locale where I hunted. Maybe it wasn't wet enough. Only two of the aforementioned unisexuals were found. But, a major Holy Grail and the species that I was most interested in finding did reveal itself.

Read on...

Yes! A whopper of a tiger salamander! I was just about to throw in the towel after lots of country lane cruising when this bruiser appeared on the road. It was about 9 inches long - they can get nearly a foot in length - and smack in the middle of the wet pavement. After a brief photo session, the animal was placed in wet grass well off the road, on the side that he was headed for. Good thing, too, as several cars whipped along while I was working with him, and the slow-moving amphibian surely would have been pancaked. Road mortality in salamanders is a significant threat in some areas.

Tiger salamanders are among our rarer amphibians, and I'd dare say most people haven't seen one. Big ones like this are a sight to behold, and finding one - better yet, many - makes the late wet nights well worth venturing out in.

I'd say the big salamander runs are still in the future, and I'll do my best to be out there for them. Expect some more salamander imagery before long.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

A wacky experiment in mega-magnification

A friend (I don't want to say who so as to avoid giving any hint about this location, but I am very grateful!) recently tipped me to a great horned owl nest, and as it was near a site that I was going to anyway, I stopped by for a peek. As it turns out, the owl was incubating atop an old raptor nest and was fairly visible. But a long ways away! I measured the distance from where my camera rig, above, sits to the owl nest using Google Earth. A whopping 665 feet, or well over two football fields!

Great horned owls using platform nests like this should not be approached. Owls atop such relatively exposed nests tend to be very skittish, and will likely flush even when the interloper is still a long ways off. But in this case, the road and place that I parked was far outside the owl's discomfort zone.

I decided to try an experiment. The rig above, which is securely mounted on a Gitzo tripod and Wimberly head, is the Canon 5D IV and Canon's stellar 800mm f/5.6 lens. Sandwiched between lens and camera are the Canon 2x III teleconverter and 1.4x teleconverter, linked by a 12mm extension tube (the teleconverters will not directly connect). The end result: a 2240mm lens! That gave me the oomph to reach out to that owl nest, but given all the layers of glass that I was shooting through, I didn't think the results would be very good.

And they're not, but they do provide documentary images. Also, two things decidedly not in my favor were overcast skies, and gusts of 15-20 mph. The results would certainly be better on a calm, bright day.

Here's the uncropped owl photo. From 665 feet away. To maximum sharpness, I shot in Live View, which prevents any mirror slap, and used 10-second delay, so there would be no operator-caused movement. I also removed the enormous lens hood, which reduces wind shake, and held the camera strap in a way that it wouldn't blow or cause camera movement (to lazy to remove it).

With those teleconverters, the base aperture is reduced to f/16, which is what I shot at. I used 1/500 shutter speed, as that's about the slowest that I thought I could get away with. Exposure compensation was +0.3. These settings spiked the ISO to 6400 - way past my comfort zone, but there was nothing to be done about it. Also, the teleconverters eliminate auto focus, so focusing must be done manually.

Here's the same image as above, but cropped about 50%. Neither image is art, to be sure, but they do identify the subject. And the subject probably scarcely noticed me. So, I learned that this complicated and quite expensive technique will work, but you'll probably never get truly superb images. It's more for documentation.

ADVICE? If you want to take bad long range photos such as this, save a ton of money and buy one of those inexpensive super-zoom point & shoot cameras :-)

Monday, February 18, 2019

Red-shouldered hawk, fore and aft

A gorgeous adult red-shouldered hawk scans for prey from a prominent perch. I photographed this animal last Thursday in a very suburbanized area of Columbus, Ohio.

Upon arrival at a postage-stamp natural area not far from my house, about the first bird that I detected was a red-shouldered hawk. Its strident screams couldn't be missed. An instant later, it flew in with a big branch, and led me right to its nest site. The nest isn't complete, and it may be a false start, but I hope the birds keep on with construction and use it as the nest is in a great place to discreetly watch the birds' progress.

Shortly thereafter, its mate flew in and the pair promptly copulated. Branches and other factors conspired to keep me from getting a good shot of that activity, but I tried.

The red-shouldered hawk population in Ohio and surrounding regions has been on the upswing for some time. This is a forest raptor, and as our woodlands have matured, so has favorable red-shouldered hawk habitat. Their increase has been especially notable in urban and suburban areas. Many of the neighborhoods in which I see them around Columbus now have numerous trees that are near climax stage. The effect is that of an urban forest, and in spite of all the people, houses, and traffic, the hawks have moved in.

No one should complain about having this species around. Very few raptors rival a red-shouldered hawk for showiness. In my view, their presence adds much to a neighborhood, and besides, they're fun to watch. In warmer seasons, red-shouldered hawks take lots of snakes and its always interesting to watch them rise from a dive with a wriggling reptile. I'll try and keep tabs on this pair, and see if they successfully nest at this site.

PHOTOGRAPHIC NOTE: The day that I took these photos was a typical white sky winter day. The bird in the images did cooperate nicely by hunting from a perfectly exposed perch, not far off. Red-shouldered hawks often can be quite tame, and as long as the observer is quiet they'll tolerate interlopers fairly well. Anyway, with that dastardly white sky as a backdrop, I had to GREATLY increase exposure compensation, to +2.7 EV (nearly three stops). Even then, the images were still somewhat underexposed, and I had to brighten them a bit more in post-processing. The shots were made with the Canon 5D IV and 800mm f/5.6 lens, at f/5.6, 1/320, and ISO 800, in manual mode. As often is the case, ISO drove much of my settings. I really don't like going higher than 800 if possible. As the lens was wide open at f/5.6, I had nowhere to go there. I also knew I needed all that positive exposure compensation - backing that down would have reduced the need for light. But I'm not into adding huge amounts of exposure correction in post-processing as I think it leads to poorer image quality. Thus, I dialed back the shutter speed to keep the ISO in my desired range. Even though that 800mm lens is a tank, by using good tripod-mounted stabilization techniques, it's amazing how slow a shutter speed one can use and still get a sharp image.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Nature: Dad's encouragement helped us become birds of a feather

John McCormac, shown here on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, helped foster his son's appreciation for nature/Jim McCormac

February 17, 2019

Jim McCormac

My interest in nature is apparently innate. I was intensely curious about birds, bugs and other fauna for as long as I can remember. Fortunately, my parents were supportive of my two brothers and my interests and helped us develop them.

We all walked different paths. My brother Mike was always interested in rocks and became a geologist. My other brother John liked to fix stuff from an early age and ended up fixing people and disasters big and small as a fireman and paramedic.

Our varied pursuits were actively encouraged by our mother, Martha, and dad, John. It didn’t matter that their sons’ interests deviated from tried-and-true familial pursuits. For instance, my mother was a teacher and dad a lawyer.

By the fourth grade, I was already pretty knowledgeable about birds, my first passion. My elementary school teacher that year was Deborah Moon. She liked birds and greatly encouraged my interest. By the end of that school year, she had other kids interested in the feathered crowd, too.

Around the time that I turned 16, I met Bruce Peterjohn. He was a walking encyclopedia of all things avian, and his field-identification skills were amazing. Bruce went on to author the definitive work on Ohio’s birdlife, “The Birds of Ohio.” We began birding together, and did so scores of times over several years, giving me the equivalent of a Ph.D. in field ornithology.

Through Bruce, I met scores of accomplished bird people: Tom Bartlett, Dave Corbin, Jim Fry (former author of this column), Tom LePage, John Pogacnik, Larry Rosche, Esther Reichelderfer, Tom Thomson and many others. All of them patiently encouraged me, and jump-started my skills.

But no one was more supportive than my parents, and parents are usually the most critical to a child’s early intellectual growth. Before I had my driver’s license, they — and my brother Mike — would motor me to good birding spots and to see rarities that I learned about via the phone rare-bird alert.

Dad and I made some epic chases to see mega rarities. One of these was a Bachman’s sparrow, which spent part of the summer of 1974 at Highbanks Metro Park. It was the last known territorial bird in Ohio.

Even better was our successful pursuit of a red-cockaded woodpecker that appeared at Old Man’s Cave in 1975. The only other Ohio record dated to 1872, and no one thought another would appear.

Even after I struck out on my own, there were birding excursions with dad. Some were as far as Alaska and Costa Rica. All of these forays fostered a deep interest in nature, especially birds, in my parents.

Dad’s legal career filled his life with weighty responsibilities. After a short career as a trial lawyer, he became dean of Franklin University’s law school. He orchestrated its successful transition to Capital University, where he also served as dean. He went on to serve three terms as an appellate court judge, was president of the Ohio State Bar Association and served the legal community with distinction in many other capacities.

Through it all, he made time for me and birds. For nearly two decades, he volunteered at Highbanks Metro Park, where his favorite duty was tending to numerous bluebird nest boxes. Dad helped produce hundreds of bluebird chicks, something he considered a noble calling.

On Feb. 1, dad passed away at the age of 92. His legacy lives on through the countless people that he mentored, and the progeny of all those bluebirds that he cared for. We’ll miss him greatly.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Skunk-cabbage and an icy waterfall

I hadn't tripped the shutter on a real camera for several weeks, due to lots of more important things taking place, so getting out a bit last Monday was very photographically therapeutic. Time was short, so I ran over to two local spots. The first was Kiwanis Riverway Park, a postage stamp of a natural area but full of biodiversity. Kiwanis sits on the east bank of the Scioto River in Dublin, Ohio, and to me at least it is defined by the artesian springs that feed its wetlands. The boggy soil created by the springs is wonderful habitat for the first of our native spring wildflowers to bloom, the skunk-cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus

I was pleased but not surprised to find the skunkers lunging from the boggy mire, and a check of the more mature specimens revealed pollen adorning the tiny flowers. Full bloom, on February 11. I was especially pleased to be able to make photos of the plants in the snow. In this image, we can see evidence of the thermogenic nature of this odd arum. Skunk-cabbage generate heat as a byproduct of their growth, and self-warm enough to melt away the snow around the fleshy liver-dappled spathe - the fleshy hood that encloses the true flowers.

Spring has sprung.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Only a few minutes from Kiwanis Park is one of central Ohio's most iconic waterfalls, Hayden Run Falls. So, over I dashed to try my hand at a landscape image. Abundant snowmelt and lingering ice formations cast the falls in an especially pleasing light, and I was glad that I made the short detour. If you've not seen this place, make a visit sometime, especially after rainfall has swollen the small feeder creek.

Sometimes when reviewing winter waterfall shots, I find that I don't particular like the colorized versions. That was the case here. The Columbus limestone has an orangish tinge in places, and the juxtaposition of mossy greens and various browns was a bit unpleasing to my eye. So I converted the image to black and white and was much more pleased with the end result. Ice, snow, and water often lens themselves well to B & W interpretation. I always shoot in color, though, even though I have the option of shooting in black and white with my cameras. Converting images to B & W is simple, and as I ALWAYS work off copies of original images, I will always have the original color versions should I ever want to use them.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Nature: Common northern mockingbird is overlooked marvel

A northern mockingbird guards a nearby cache of rose hips/Jim McCormac

February 3, 2019

Jim McCormac

Note: This column is a bit dated. What with all that's been going on, it's been impossible to produce much new material, or put stuff out that was already in the hopper.

With more than 350 Dispatch columns under my belt, I’ve covered many facets of Ohio’s extraordinary natural history. Birds are a large, conspicuous part of our world and I write more avian columns than on any other subject.

Occasionally I realize I’ve neglected some common, interesting feathered topic. Such was the case on a recent snowy day in Hocking County. While surveying birds for the annual Hocking Hills Christmas Bird Count, our team ran across a particularly audacious northern mockingbird.

No shrinking violet, the mockingbird was teed up atop a robust multiflora rose shrub. The thorny thicket’s branches were heavily beset with rose hips, and the bird was defending its cache against all comers.

His primary antagonists were a large flock of eastern bluebirds that loitered nearby. Also smitten with vitamin-rich rose hips, the bluebirds would attempt occasional raids. The mocker was having none of it and quickly drove off his competitors.

Mockingbirds are famed for their aggression. When I was a kid, we had a big black cat who was tough as nails. “Inky” was famed for combating other cats, dogs, or anything else that crossed his path. The only thing we ever saw intimidate him was the local mockingbird. When the bird spotted Inky in the backyard (before we knew cats shouldn’t be outdoors), the one-sided battle was on. The bird would swoop and scold, sending a thoroughly cowed Inky scrambling for cover.

Few birds are more aptly named than the mockingbird. Both sexes sing, and their repertoire largely consists of mimicking sounds they hear. This predilection is defined in the bird’s scientific name: Mimus polyglottos (mimic of many voices). A bird can retain about 150 song types at any given time, and their skill in aping other sounds is remarkable.

My local mockingbird perfectly reproduces nearly all the songbirds he hears: cardinals, robins, bluebirds, flickers and many others. More interesting is his ability to reproduce mechanical sounds such as fire-truck sirens and the backup beeps of garbage trucks. Why mockingbirds mimic is unknown.

Largely a southern species, in spite of the “northern” in its name (it’s the northernmost of four closely related species), the mockingbird seems to be expanding northward. Ohio is near the northern limits of its range, and the species probably didn’t colonize the state until the mid-1800s. They expanded northward throughout the 20th century and continue their march north.

Suburbia often provides suitable habitat for mockers: dense shrubbery, open spaces, scattered trees and plenty of berry bushes. They’re pretty common in Columbus and the vicinity, and many readers are within earshot of one.

The mockingbird’s varied song is pleasing, and trying to identify the various sources of its mimicry is fun. But woe to the listener in close proximity to an unmated male. These bachelors often sing throughout the night. I once had one that loudly sang from my chimney top, serenading the neighborhood throughout the wee hours. This bird sometimes reminded me of the title of Harper Lee’s famous book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

John W. McCormac, 1926 - 2019

My father, John McCormac, speaking about his war experiences at a veteran's event on August 18, 2017. He was 90 at the time, but as always his thoughts were organized and his recall of those events of 70+ years earlier was phenomenal.

Dad passed away last Friday evening, February 1st, seven days before his 93rd birthday. He was a productive dynamo throughout his life, and his works touched a huge number of people over decades. Many readers here know him, or met him and my mother, Martha, somewhere along the line. Both were (mom, still is) keenly interested in birds and nature.

Below is dad's obituary, as printed in the Columbus Dispatch today:

McCormac, John
1926 - 2019

John W. McCormac, age 92, transitioned peacefully from this world surrounded by his loving family on Friday, February 1, 2019. John lived life with gusto, was a Renaissance man, friend and mentor to many, loving husband and caring father and grandfather. He will be dearly missed by many, including his wife of 66 years, Martha; sons, Jim and Mike, Mike's wife, Patrice and their children, Katie, Kevin, Luke, and Megan, and son John's (1960 - 2000) wife, Tammy and their children, Christa, Shawn, and Tara and many nieces and nephews.

John was born on February 8, 1926 in Zanesville, Ohio to the late Samuel and Phyllis McCormac. At age 17, John convinced his mother to sign a waiver allowing him to enlist in the U.S. Navy. He became an anti-aircraft gunner aboard the USS Thurston, a troop carrier that offloaded Higgins boats that transported marines onto the beaches. He was in the thick of battle at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Thurston at times besieged by Kamikaze aircraft and other threats.

Following the war, John embarked on a career in law, graduating with a law degree from Franklin University in 1960. His inaugural job was as a trial attorney, a post in which he won 24 of the 25 cases he tried. He later became dean of Franklin University's law school, eventually orchestrating its successful merger into Capital University, where he also served as dean. Among many accomplishments there, he began a successful paralegal program, and was a pioneer in actively recruiting females and African Americans to law school. In 1974, John was elected to the 10th District Court of Appeals, where he served three six-year terms. During the course of his legal career, John authored seven books on law and served the legal profession with distinction in many capacities, including president of the Ohio Bar Association.

A natural athlete, John participated in many athletic pursuits, and also refereed football and other sports. A crack table tennis wizard, his quirkiest sporting opportunity came in the 1950's when the Harlem Globetrotters offered him a contract to play exhibitions during halftimes. He declined, in order to pursue law school, a decision that always left him with mild regret. At age 53, John took up running, and went on to run 38 marathons, and was an Olympic Torch relay carrier in 1996.

He and Martha were long interested in nature. John faithfully volunteered for 25 years at Highbanks Metro Park, where his duties included monitoring bluebird nest boxes. His faith in God was vital to him, and John was a longtime member and deeply involved in Xenos Christian Fellowship. In spite of many serious duties and weighty responsibilities, John never lost his childlike curiosity for new subjects. He was always interested in other people, and wanted to learn what made them tick. When exposed to a new subject, his mind became a sponge. His intellectual thirst was insatiable, and that, coupled with an astonishing photographic memory, allowed him to become versed in an amazing array of topics. He was always willing to help anyone, or lend an ear.

John is preceded in death by his mother Phyllis and father Samuel, and his three brothers Bill, Don, and Scott, and his son John. Visiting hours are Wednesday, February 6 from 2-4 and 6-8 pm at Schoedinger Worthington Chapel, 6699 N. High St., Worthington, OH 43085. Funeral service is Thursday, February 7 at 1 pm at Xenos Christian Fellowship Main Campus, 1390 Community Park Drive, Columbus, OH 43229. Burial at Kingwood Memorial Park, 8230 Columbus Pike, Lewis Center, OH 43035 immediately following services. In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to the John M. McCormac Scholarship at the Columbus State Foundation. Gifts can be made online at or mail to Columbus State Foundation 550 East Spring St., Columbus, Ohio 43205. Visit to send online condolences to the family.